Leon Redbone: Long Way From Home/On the Track

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Leon Redbone
Long Way From Home/On the Track
(Third Man)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Leave it to Jack White, one of American music’s most dedicated, uncompromising and eclectic practitioners, to focus attention on one of this country’s under-the-radar artists, one who shares similar qualities.

While the recently retired (reportedly due to health concerns) Leon Redbone isn’t exactly unknown — his dozen studio albums along with appearances on A Prairie Home Companion and Saturday Night Live in addition to commercials for Budweiser, All detergent and Ken-L Ration dog food kept his name buzzing with the NPR crowd and those paying attention — his idiosyncratic flair hasn’t necessarily translated with millennials. But like White, who is committed to preserving historical American music, Redbone’s catalog of covers replicating vaudeville, pre-WWll blues, ragtime and pop reveals a man dedicated to keeping these songs alive with contemporary audiences.

To that end, these two discs — one a re-issue of Redbone’s striking 1975 major label debut and the other previously unavailable live and studio solo performances from early in Redbone’s career — get the Third Man/White approved treatment with CD, digital and even vinyl releases. With his baritone, gravelly, slurred vocals, sparse backing, ever-present shades, Panama hat and Frank Zappa-styled facial hair, Redbone was an instant enigma. It’s a persona he has maintained and cultivated over a 40-year career. His first album was helmed by famed jazz producer Joel Dorn, and even though it featured occasional backing from horns and violin, it generally captured Redbone unaccompanied with his acoustic guitar, slinging out his catalog of musty oddities with a low key charm and an obvious dedication to this retro music.

It’s immediately clear that Redbone was no novelty act; he adored this sound of a bygone era and would never update, modernize or trivialize it just to move product. Either you were on board with his vibe or you caught another bus. Even with his work in mainstream media, he never sold out the musical integrity he displayed on both his initial studio set and the unaccompanied style for the 18 tracks — eight live and 10 studio — from Long Way from Home. In fact, any one of these songs could easily have been included on his last 2014 release, likely his final studio recording. From blues nuggets like Jimmie Rodgers’ “T B Blues” to Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil” and a hummed version of Irving Berlin’s “Marie” (also reprised for On the Track), these are the selections that caught Bob Dylan’s ear, prompting him to mention Redbone in a high profile interview, helping him procure a record contract. They are naturally rawer, more blues-based and casual than those on the Warner’s album, but also show how fully formed Redbone’s concept was as early as 1972.

He’s surely an acquired taste, and if you have a few of his discs, you may not need them all. Still, these sets capture the distinctive approach that informed Leon Redbone’s entire career; one that Jack White has thankfully tapped into, hoping another generation can discover these musty, nearly forgotten songs and appreciate their indispensable contribution in the American musical art form.

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